Flash Fiction: Warm Hearts (860 words)

In the dead of winter, Ashlynn was always the first out of bed. It was not her choice. Everyone else stayed wrapped in their blankets, happy in the warmth that built after hours of sleep and her blankets were just as snug. The air was still and cold between the shuttered windows of the upper floor, and the wooden boards under her feet only warmed when she stood still for a moment. The forges in the long hall beneath her had cooled overnight, and the heat of them only touched her after she came down the stairs.

But they needed to be stoked again before the day’s work could begin. She was too young to hammer the red hot metals like the others, so she built the fires while they slept a little longer.

She grabbed her metal bucket and shovel from the corner and started to work immediately, clearing yesterday’s fires from the three fire pits. Quickly but carefully, she ran the coals and ash through the sifter, saving the larger chunks and throwing them back. The ash she took out the back door and emptied into the lead-lined barrels. Before she settled the lid back into place, she made a note to tell Ceanne it was almost time to call the Soapman. Two more hard day’s work, and the barrel would be full.

She ducked back inside where it was just a little warmer.

Taking wood shavings from the bin beside the carpenter’s station at the far side of the room, threw a handful over fresh charcoal in the fire pits. She lit the matches and let them burn past their white heads before she set them on top of the shavings. When she had started all three fires, she looped back around to the first, and watched, waiting for the charcoal to catch.

Ashlynn pulled the rake from its holder beside the fire, and leaned on it, hands folded under her chin. She listened for the tell-tale fire crackle behind her, just in case one of them caught first, but didn’t turn away from the pit in front of her. The yellow flames were running lazily along the match, taking their sweet time wandering in the shavings. They licked at the charcoal for a long moment before they finally dared to crawl over them. Then the fire rolled out and rose high, and Ashlynn stacked more charcoal around its edges.

She ran to the next fire, finding it climbing higher as well. She add charcoal there as well, and had to wait a moment at the third before she could pile it high.

She wound around the room quickly, raking the charcoal together as it lit, and adding more around the edges, until each pit had a thick bed of fire, and sweat was running down her back. The fires had all turned deep orange, each one a armload of summer sun, so hot, her face felt like ice each time she turned away from one. And she raked through it until it sparked rolled at her touch, and turned the edges of the tool dull orange as well, as if the metal had been lit as well.

She heard Ceanne come down the stairs behind her, and turned quickly. Leaning against the wall beside the stairs, she crossed her arms looking at Ashlynn with a smile. She was already in her thick work shirt, and leather breeches, sleeves rolled up to her elbows in the heat. Her long hair was tied back to keep it out of her eyes and off the back of her neck.

“Having fun?” she asked.

Ashlynn put the rake down carefully on the hearth stones beside the fire pit. She wasn’t sure from her tone whether she should look sheepish or not. The fires were dangerous things, hot and wild, warm hearts that should never be toyed with. They could too easily decide they didn’t like the games. Ceanne had warned her firmly when she first started work in the forges, but she there was no reproof in her tone now.

“Yes,” Ashlynn said honestly.

Ceanne’s smile stretched. Pushing off the wall with her shoulder, she started across the room toward Ashlynn. “It’s a good thing,” she told her.

“It is?” Ashlynn asked carefully.

Ceanne nodded. “When I was your age, I asked my teacher when I would be able to start learning on the anvils. I asked him how tall I should be, how strong I had to be, how old I had to be. and he said it had nothing to do with any of that. He said I would get a hammer when I started to flirt with the fire. Flirt. Not play. I told him I didn’t know what he meant, and he laughed and told me that I wasn’t ready then.” She leaned her head a little. “Do you know what he meant?”

Ashlynn nodded quickly. “Absolutely,” she said. She tried to keep her heels on the floor, though all she wanted to do was bounce up onto her toes.

Ceanne laughed. She ruffled Ashlynn’s hair, and gave her a fast, one-armed hug. “Almost,” she said. “Almost.”

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